The great divide: You either love or hate cilantro
By Laura Vozzella
The Baltimore Sun
Susan Hill dislikes cilantro, and not just a little. “I just hate it,” says Hill, 36, an Annapolis, Md., stay-at-home mom. “Oh, I do.”
The fresh herb Hill detests is also known as coriander and Chinese parsley. It looks much like Italian flat-leaf parsley. And good thing. Cilantro has so many enemies that it could use a couple of aliases and a way to pass for something else in the herb garden.
Once an exotic flavor confined to Mexican, Asian and Indian cooking, cilantro turns up today even in white-bread American restaurants. It has become so commonplace that it’s no longer just a flavor but a color; cilantro is a paint hue at Lowe’s, according to Cindy Langone of Catonsville, Md., who had her bedroom done in it.
Many people love the herb. Just as many, it seems, hate it. There appears to be no middle ground, and the reason for that just might come down to genetics. Scientists have yet to isolate the cilantro-hating gene, but a Philadelphia researcher who put twins up to sniffing the herb is hot on the trail.
“The twin study we’ve done implicates genetics to be involved,” said Charles J. Wysocki, a behavioral neuroscientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center who, for what it’s worth, is not a cilantro-hater.
“I love cilantro, but I also like the smell of skunk,” he said.
If human DNA really does account for why some people think the herb has a fresh, citrusy flavor and others think it tastes like soap, that could also explain the existence of IHateCilantro.com and its ability to attract 2,809 members, some of whom post haiku on the site. A sample:
Palmolive or Joy
Pour it all over your food
Thus is cilantro
Passions run so high that Hampden, Md.’s Golden West Cafe will happily hold the cilantro meant for many house specialties. This, in a place with such a strict no-substitutions policy that it won’t hold the chile sauce or even serve it on the side because it’s “essential to the dishes that include it.”
“It’s definitely become a concern,” said waiter Clark Ross. “If people say, ‘No cilantro,’ we take it very seriously. We treat it as if it were an allergy.”
Customers who make this request might have a genetically based inability to smell certain odors, which the body interprets as flavor when food’s involved. The condition is called specific anosmia, and Wysocki’s twin study suggests it’s the key to cilantro-bashing.
At an annual twins festival in Twinsburg, Ohio, five years ago, Wysocki had 41 pairs of identical twins and 12 pairs of fraternal twins take whiffs of chopped cilantro and rate the scent on a scale of minus 11 to plus 11.
(Eleven? Like the amps in “This Is Spinal Tap,” feelings for and against cilantro apparently crank past the standard 10 mark.)
“A correlation can go from zero to one,” he explained. “The identical twins correlated to 0.8, the fraternal twins to 0.04.”
That means the identical twins loved or loathed cilantro almost completely in sync. Not so for the fraternal twins, who share genes as any siblings do but aren’t carbon copies of each other.
Wysocki theorizes that some people have a specific anosmia ó a nasal blind spot, if you will ó that makes them insensitive to cilantro’s pleasing, aromatic notes. All they get is a soapy-smelling component that’s normally masked by the good stuff.
If it’s all genetic, those who detect soap could never hope to acquire the taste. But cilantro can be an acquired distaste, due not to genetic makeup but culinary malpractice.
“At first, yeah, I liked it. I grew it,” said Nancy Carr, 44, a Towson, Md., public relations consultant. “It was kind of fresh and different” ó especially for someone who grew up in a household where “herbs were salt and margarine. Even ground pepper was a novelty.”
Before long, the bloom was off the sprig.
“Like many people, I probably overdosed on cilantro in the ’90s,” she said. “It started appearing everywhere, kind of like tarragon in the ’80s. The ’80s completely turned me off tarragon. I liked it in 1981 and by 1989, I was done with it. Now I can’t even put tarragon in my herb garden.”
Likewise, she’s rooted cilantro out of her life.
Epicures exist on both sides of the cilantro divide. While many chefs celebrate it, no less a foodie than Julia Child told Larry King in 2002 that she thought cilantro (and arugula for that matter) had “kind of a dead taste.”
The two herbs, she said, were the only foods she hated. Were she served either one, Child said, “I would pick it out if I saw it and throw it on the floor.”